By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2009
Five years ago, Matthew Sanchez was told that he might never walk again after shattering his C-5 vertebra in a collision on the football field at Our Lady of Mercy High School.
But this summer, Sanchez, along with a few close friends, completed a grueling cross-country bike ride to raise awareness of and money for the SHARE Initiative, an effort of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center that assists wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Sanchez knows firsthand the excellent care specialists at Shepherd, a center for catastrophic spinal and brain injuries, gave him. When he was injured in his sophomore year at the Fayetteville Catholic high school, he was airlifted from the field and taken to the Shepherd Center.
He underwent surgery at Piedmont Hospital next door, where doctors fused the C-4 and C-6 vertebrae with a cadaver’s leg bone and inserted a plate to support and protect his spine. Following a year of rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Sanchez started walking again. He resumed many of his sports and now at the University of Georgia he competes in triathlons.
“I was fortunate enough to recover almost completely from an injury that kills most people,” Sanchez said. “I attribute that to three things. One, of course, was God. The other two factors were the doctor that was on the field at the time of my injury and the Shepherd Center. I liked the idea of giving back to the Shepherd Center by celebrating the second chance I had been given.”
When Sanchez began thinking of how to help the center, he was drawn to the TransAmerica bike ride because of its challenging elements, but he “wanted to do it for a good cause.”
Sanchez said the reason he chose the SHARE program was mainly because of John Henderson, the doctor who came to his side at the accident.
OLM was hosting its first football game of the season against Pacelli High School of Columbus in August 2004. When the incident occurred, Henderson, who was the doctor for the Pacelli team, rushed onto the field, kept Sanchez in a stable position and insisted that he be airlifted off of the field rather than moved by ambulance, a decision that was crucial to his recovery.
About a year afterward, Henderson’s son was killed in Afghanistan.
“I decided to focus my efforts on the SHARE Initiative for a couple reasons. … I thought that this would be an excellent tribute to his son and a great way to benefit soldiers who risk their lives on a daily basis,” Sanchez said.
The SHARE Initiative, established by the Shepherd Center with the assistance of philanthropist Bernie Marcus and in cooperation with Veterans Administration hospitals, extends continuing treatment and resources to soldiers who have suffered spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and to their families.
“The people at Shepherd were amazing and without their inspiration and motivation, I don’t think I could have come as far as I have come today,” Sanchez said. “I want to give back so that others, especially those in our military who find themselves in similar life-changing circumstances, can get the best care our nation has to offer.”
Sanchez recognized after the accident that he needed prayer and support from those around him. Father Paul Burke, then the school chaplain at OLM, anointed Sanchez before he was taken off the field and led the community in prayers for him while many waited nervously to learn of the outcome. The priest was with his parents when they were told their son might not survive.
“The accident brought us together and forged a spiritual bond, from the surgery through the rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center and, thank God, back to Mercy,” Father Burke recalled Sept. 1. “The local community was incredible. Prayers began in local parishes and non-Catholic churches. Masses were celebrated, including some at the hospital and Shepherd Center. Prayer chains began, as well as letters flooded in.”
“The Mercy community was a light of faith, a beacon of hope and a community of love in the midst of fear and uncertainty about Matthew’s future. Also, teachers helped tutor Matthew during his time of rehabilitation,” the priest said.
“Immediately after my injury, I was paralyzed and told I would never walk again,” said Sanchez. “When I realized how much my life was about to change, I knew I needed people around me who could help me learn to care for myself again and show me how to adapt to my new circumstances.”
Father Burke said the young man persisted patiently in a demanding rehabilitation process.
“I am thankful to God for the miracle of Matthew’s healing,” Father Burke said. “From hearing that ‘he could die’ to the news of his 4,000-mile bike ride, a miracle has taken place. I am also very grateful to the staff of the Shepherd Spinal Center for their tremendous work and service. The bike ride is a testimony and tribute to Matthew and his family, the Shepherd Center and the community of Our Lady of Mercy. It also reflects the power of prayer.”
The Ride for Shepherd team, which included two of Sanchez’s close friends, Marina Fleming and Anthony Orig, traveled the TransAmerica Trail, a bicycle route from Oregon to Virginia that stretches more than 4,000 miles. The trek began in Astoria, Ore., at the end of May and concluded on Aug. 7, a total trip of 78 days.
Sanchez said the team averaged between 60 and 75 miles per day, sometimes more and sometimes less. The group would wake up around 8 or 9 a.m. each day, eat breakfast, clean up camp and begin their daily trek.
“It sounds monotonous, but it really wasn’t because every day was a new place with new people and we were usually riding through a beautiful part of the country,” said Sanchez. “We also did media stuff anywhere from once a week to two or three times, just depending on the population density and availability.”
But the cross-country trip was not a pleasure ride. The team often faced inclement weather, from wind and rain to hail and snow, not to mention the exhausting number of miles they chalked up every day.
Sanchez and the group did remain positive though, mainly because of the support they received along the way.
“What amazed me most about people along the way was the generosity,” Sanchez said. “There were people willing to let us stay in their homes or yards, in churches, donate hotel rooms and meals, and just general friendliness. It was really a cool experience to see such a good side of people. I don’t think that we met one mean person on the entire trip and definitely made lifetime friends with some of the other people we met.”
The Ride for Shepherd team set a fundraising goal of $50,000. Sanchez said their total is currently near $15,000 and he continues his work, off the bicycle, to raise more funds for the Shepherd Center.
“I have continued to do fundraisers and would love to speak at any church willing to have me. I really believe this is a worthy cause,” he said.
To contact Matthew Sanchez, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.